Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Regime Question: Theory Building in Democracy Studies

  • Gerardo L. Munck (a1)


This review article assesses the accomplishments and limitations of the best of recent research on democratization and democracy in Europe, South America, and post-Soviet Eurasia with regard to the challenge of theory building. Concerning the dependent variables of this literature, the article argues that the concepts of democratic transition, democratic consolidation, and democratic quality, as currently conceptualized, do not provide a clear focus for causal theorizing. It recommends, rather, that the proper subject matter of regime analysis should be the origins and stability of regime types and suggests how the semantic field of democracy studies could be clarified through a focus on the concepts of democratic transition and democratic stability. Relatedly, it argues that democracy scholars have made unwarranted use of aggregate and dichotomous measures and advocates instead the use of more disaggregate and nuanced measures. Concerning causal theories, the article shows that researchers have identified a range of potential explanatory factors and proposed suggestive complex causal models. Nonetheless, it also argues that democracy scholars have rarely formulated clearly specified general causal models and identifies some key pitfalls to be avoided as scholars tackle two key tasks: the development of thick and general theory and the definition of causal models. The conclusion raises the need to place theory building in context and argues that scholars must also turn their attention to the demanding challenges of data generation and causal assessment.



Hide All

1 Lipset, , Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (New York:Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1960); Moore, , Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: LordandPeasant in the Making of the Modern (Boston:Beacon Press, 1966); Dahl, , Polyarchy (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1971); Bendix, , Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1978).

2 On the large-nation bias, see Rokkan, Stein, Citizens, Elections, and Parties:Approaches to the parative Study ofthe Processes ofDevelopment (New York:David McKay, 1970), 49.

3 Of course, the other exception that seemed unavoidable, no matter how far the large-nation bias was pushed, was India, which stood out as a non-Western case of democracy.

4 Important works that avoid this problem include Ertman, Thomas, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1997); Stephens, John D., “Democratic Transition and Breakdown in Europe, 1870-1939: A Test of the Moore Thesis,” American Journal of Sociology 94 (March 1989); and Bartolini, Stefano, The Political Mobilization of the European Left, 1860–1980: The Class Cleavage (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2000).

5 See Luebbert, Gregory M., Liberalism, Fascism, or Social Democracy: Social Classes and the Origins of Regimes in Interwar Europe (New York:Oxford University Press, 1991); and Berg-Schlosser, Dirk and Mitchell, Jeremy, eds., Conditions of Democracy in Europe, 1919–1939: Systematic Studies (London:MacMillan, 2000).

6 For synthetic discussions of this literature, see Berg-Schlosser, Dirk and De Meur, Gisele, “Conditions of Democracy in Interwar Europe: A Boolean Test of Major Hypotheses,” Comparative Politics 26 (April 1994); Janoski, Thomas A., Citizenship and Civil Society: A Framework ofRight and Obliga tions in Liberal, Traditional, and Social Democratic Regimes (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1998), chaps. 6, 7; and Ertman, , “Democracy and Dictatorship in Interwar Western Europe Revisited,” World Politics 50 (April 1998).

7 O'Donnell, , Schmitter, , and Whitehead, , eds., Transitionsfrom Authoritarian Rule: Prospectsfor Democracy (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

8 See also Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Stephens, Evelyne Huber, and Stephens, John D., Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1992).

9 Here I am drawing on the conceptual analysis by Mazzuca, Sebastian, “Democracy and Bureaucracy: Access to Power versus Exercise of Power,” in Collier, David and Munck, Gerardo L., eds., “Regimes and Democracy in Latin America,” vol. 1, “Theories, Agendas, and Findings” (Manuscript, 2001).

10 These same general questions, of course, can be asked with reference to authoritarianism.

11 Collier (pp. 24, 29–32) does discuss a related issue in addressing the problem of unelected legislators. However, this aspect of democracy is not incorporated in the scores given each case.

12 On this and other problems with the Freedom House Index, see Munck, Gerardo L. and Verkuilen, Jay, “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: Evaluating Alternative Indices,” Comparative Political Studies 35 (February 2002). Diamond's use of Freedom House data is somewhat puzzling, in that he explicitly rejects “the incorporation of social and economic desiderata into the definition of democracy” and argues for “a purely political” conception of democracy (pp. 8,18,24). Such a disconnect between the formal definition of a concept and the actual definition (whether explicitly or implicitly) used in measuring the concept is, unfortunately, quite common in the literature.

13 O'Donnell, and Schmitter, , TransitionsfromAuthoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncer tain Democracies (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 61.

14 Specifically, they discuss the duration of transitions and how constitutional questions are settled sometimes before and sometimes after founding elections are held (pp. 81–83).

15 Linz, Juan J., The Breakdown ofDemocratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown, and Keequilibriation more:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

16 Kitschelt et al. also use survey data, innovatively comparing the attitudes of political elites and citizens. Their object of study, however, is relations of representation, not democratic consolidation.

17 Przeworski, , “Some Problems in the Study of the Transition to Democracy,” in O'Donnell, , Schrmtter, , and Whitehead, , eds., Transitionsfrom Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives (Balti more:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 5053.

18 The same goes for the issue of whether attitudes and/or behaviors are important to democratic consolidation.

19 Probably the most fruitful way to refocus the debate about democratic quality is to define it in terms of the concept of exercise of state power, rather than access to it, a key distinction discussed by Mazzuca (fn. 9). Thus conceptualized, the concern with democratic quality would be shown to refer not to the regime question that is the concern of this article but to a distinct research problem that Mazzuca labels the administration question. This is what Linz himself appears to imply when he argues that “the quality of democracy depends on the quality of the state”; Linz, , Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Boulder, Colo.:Lynne Rienner, 2000), 35.

20 The critical point is that this understanding of democratic consolidation as involving the durability of democratic rules shows that its measurement merely constitutes an extension of the work that needs to be done to measure democratic transitions. Thus, while a measure of democratic transition must register the manner in which authoritarian rules are transformed into democratic ones, step by step along various attributes, a measure of democratic stability should simply aim at capturing the extent to which those democratic gains are retained and not lost.

21 I draw the notion of thick, as opposed to thin, theory from Coppedge, Michael, “Thickening Thin Concepts and Theories: Combining Large N and Small in Comparative Politics,” Comparative Politics 31 (July 1999).

22 Sartori's influential analysis of concepts is the standard point of reference for the argument that efforts at generalization require analysts to move up the ladder of generality and use concepts formed on the basis of very few attributes. See Sartori, Giovanni, “Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics,” American Political Science Review 64 (December 1970), 1041, 1043–44. In his less formal analysis, however, Sartori also recognizes the possibility of a “tree-type arrangement,” which has radically different implications for the construction of thick, general theory. See idem, “The Tower of Babel,” in Sartori, , Riggs, Fred W., and Teune, Henry, Tower of Babel: On the Definition and Analysis of Concepts in the Social Sciences (Pittsburgh, Pa.:International Studies Association, 1975), 17.

23 The count of twenty-eight includes Mongolia; the twenty-two new states include all fifteen post-Soviet countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia.

24 This argument has been articulated by Bunce, Valerie, “Comparing East and South,” Journal of Democracy 6 (July 1995), 95, 98–99.

25 Linz and Stepan tackle the challenge of theorizing about the stateness issue in this way (pp. 16–37). But these authors fall short in their effort to test their theory, in that they do not present the requisite data for all their cases and thus are not able to draw systematic comparisons.

26 Linz's classic 1975 work has been recently reprinted. See Linz (fn. 19). See also Chehabi, H. E. and Linz, , eds., Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

27 The importance of specifying the proposed causal model is emphasized in Lieberson, Stanley, Making it Count: The Improvement of Social Research and Theory (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1985), chaps. 4, 9. On the use and pitfalls of default models, see Abbott, Andrew, “Transcending General Linear Reality,” Sociological Theory 6 (1988). It bears noting that the failure to define the func tional form with much precision and the tendency to rely on default models are hardly problems restricted to the literature on regimes. See Beck, Nathaniel and Jackman, Simon, “Beyond Linearity by Default: Generalized Additive Models,” AmericanJournalof'PoliticalScience 42 (April 1998), 596–99

28 O'Donnell, , Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics (Berkeley:Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1973), 8591.

29 Dahl (fn. 1), 15–16.

30 Przeworski (fn. 17), 54–56; Petersen, Roger, Resistance and Rebellion: Lessonsfrom Eastern Europe (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2001).

31 O'Donnell and Schmitter (fn. 13), 18–19; Przeworski, Adam and Limongi, Fernando, “Modernization: Theories and Facts,” World Politics A1) (January 1997).

32 Collier, Ruth Berins and Collier, David, Shaping the PoliticalArena: CriticalJunctures, the Labor Movement, and the Regime Dynamics in Latin America (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1991); Mahoney, James, The Legacies ofLiberalism: Path Dependence and Political Regimes in Central America (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

33 Pierson, Paul, “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” American Political Science Review 94 (June 2000), 251. See, for example, Mahoney (fn. 32), 7.

34 Kuran, Timur, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification bridge:Harvard University Press, 1995), 7374.

35 Mill, , A System of Logic Raciocinative and Inductive, 8th ed. (1843; New York:Harper and Broth ers, 1874), 266–71, 315–17; Ragin, Charles, The Comparative Method: Moving beyond Qualitative Quantitative Strategies (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1987), 2425.

36 Lipset (fn. 1), 45–57.

37 Tarrow, Sidney, Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics (New Cambridge University Press, 1994), chap. 5.

38 Karklins, Rasma and Petersen, Roger, “Decision Calculus of Protestors and Regimes: Eastern Europe,” Journal of Politics 55 (August 1993), 598604.

39 Przeworski, , Democracy and the Market: Political andEconomic Reforms in Eastern Europe and America (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1991), 9697.

40 See also Lijphart, Arend, Democracy in Plural Societies (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1977)

41 Przeworski (fn. 39), 1–7.

42 Richard Snyder, “Paths out of Sultanistic Regimes: Combining Structural and Voluntarist Perspectives,” in Chehabi and Linz (fn. 26).

43 In statistical terminology, this assumption is referred to as the assumption of unit homogeneity.

44 Mill (fn. 35), 311–15; Ragin (fn. 35), 25; and idem, Fuzzy-Set Social Science (Chicago:University of Chicago, 2000), 40, 5153, 102–4.

45 See also Alfred Stepan, “Paths toward Redemocratization: Theoretical and Comparative Considerations,” in O'Donnell, Schmitter, and Whitehead (fn. 17). The notion of path is used in more than one way in the literature on regimes. Thus, it is important to distinguish these arguments about multiple paths to the same outcome from other arguments about paths, which consider multiple paths to diverse outcomes. Examples of the latter models include Moore (fn. 1); and Snyder (fn. 42).

46 For other arguments that invoke the importance of timing and that imply that the same variable may have a different effect according to when it enters into play in a sequence of events, see Pierson, , “Not Just What, but When: Timing and Sequence in Political Processes,” Studies in American Political Development 14 (Spring 2000).

47 Kitschelt, Herbert, “Formation of Party Cleavages in Post-Communist Democracies: Theoretical Propositions,” Party Politics 1 (October 1995); idem, “Accounting for Outcomes of Post-Communist Regime Change: Causal Depth or Shallowness in Rival Explanations” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Atlanta, September 1–5, 1999); idem, “Post-Communist Economic Reform. Causal Mechanisms and Concomitant Properties” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, August 30-September 2, 2001).

48 See also Kitschelt (fn. 47, 1999), 24–30. Beyond this, Kitschelt et al. link their theoretical argument to issues of citizen-party eh'te relations and the extent to which popular preferences are translated into policies, aspects of their overall argument that are tested with innovative survey data. For reasons of space, however, I am unable to discuss in detail this important aspect of Kitschelt et al.'s work.

49 This argument is more explicitly developed in Kitschelt (fn. 47,1999), 24–31.

50 For this critique, see Przeworski (fn. 39), 95–99.

51 See also Kitschelt (fn. 47,2001).

52 Though Kitschelt does seek to offer a formal causal model, the proposed causal model still requires a clearer and fuller specification; Kitschelt (fn. 47,1995), 454.

53 Przeworski (fn. 39), 1.

54 Similar arguments have been articulated recently by Pierson (fn. 33); and Mahoney, , “Path Dependence in Historical Sociology,” Theory and Society 29 (August 2000).

55 See, for example, how Petersen (fn. 30) goes well beyond Kuran (fn. 34) in analyzing the dynamics of tipping games used to explain the end of communist rule.

56 The latter possibility is insightfully explored in Mahoney, and Snyder, , “Rethinking Agency and Structure in the Study of Regime Change,” Studies in Comparative International Development 34 (Summer 1999), 1116.

57 Elster, Jon, “Reason, Interest and Passion in the East European Transitions,” Social Science Infor mation 38 (December 1999), 499.

58 The only difference would be the definition of the status quo, which is authoritarianism with regard to the question of democratic transition and democracy with regard to the question of democratic stability. In this sense, it is also worth pointing out that such a framing would essentially posit that democratic transition and authoritarian stability are merely alternative outcomes of the same process and, likewise, that democratic stability and transition to authoritarianism can be thought of in the same way. Thus, this framing would help to unify the study of democracy and authoritarianism.

59 Linz (fn. 19), 20–24.

60 Relevant discussions of these issues include Coppedge (fn. 21); Henry, E.Brady, and David, Collier, eds., Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield and Berkeley Public Policy Press, 2002); and Munck and Verkuilen (fn. 12).

* I thank Carol Leff, James Mahoney, Richard Snyder, and Jay Verkuilen for their valuable assistance. I also have benefited immensely from frequent exchanges with Sebastián Mazzuca.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

The Regime Question: Theory Building in Democracy Studies

  • Gerardo L. Munck (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.